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State sees record number of homeless families sheltered in hotels


By Matt Murphy

State House News Service

BOSTON — The House on Wednesday will debate a spending bill to close the books on fiscal 2013 and plug a major budget hole created by a surge in homelessness.

The $74.6 million spending bill, nudged forward Tuesday by the House after it was filed on Friday by the House Ways and Means Committee, includes new spending and authorizations to carry over unspent funding from fiscal 2013 into fiscal 2014. The bill allocates more than $8 million for Secretary of State William Galvin to reimburse cities and towns for special election costs and $16 million for MassHealth fee-for-service payments.

The bill also calls for Watertown to receive $81,517 to reimburse the town for expenses incurred during the public safety response to the Boston Marathon bombing in April that were not eligible for federal reimbursement.

One of the largest amounts of new spending included in the bill comes for families seeking shelter in hotels and motels following a “surge” in homelessness over the summer. The House bill would dedicate $13 million in additional resources to pay for the shelter programs, about $7 million less than requested by Gov. Deval Patrick.

At a forum in Boston last week, Undersecretary of Housing and Community Development Aaron Gornstein discussed a “huge increase in homelessness” among Massachusetts families that spiked over the summer as the number of families being sheltered in hotels and motels jumped from 1,230 in April to 1,710 in August.

“We’re really working every day to try and reduce the numbers of families in the motels, but it’s become very difficult over the summer. But we’re deploying every resource we possibly can to make a dent into that problem,” Gornstein said.

The Patrick administration has been focused on using rental assistance vouchers and support programs to keep families out of costly shelter programs, but the numbers seeking shelter in motels reached an all-time high of 2,038 families last Friday, up from 1,230 in April and eclipsing the previous high of 1,803 in November 2012.

In a statement to the News Service on Tuesday, Gornstein said the administration had made “historic investments” that have helped to prevent thousands of families from becoming homeless and moved “thousands more from shelters into permanent affordable housing.”

“In response to increasing demand for shelter space as a result of the economic downturn, DHCD has utilized motels as an overflow shelter system. We know that these environments are not ideal places for children and families and we are working with every family to help them find a permanent home in their communities. We remain engaged in a comprehensive strategy to get these families back on their feet. Everyone, including all levels of government, charitable organizations, non-profits, and the private sector, has a role to play in this process and it’s going to take all of us working together to solve this problem,” Gornstein said.

The budget bill also includes new funding for district attorneys, State Police overtime, a college readiness pilot program, and an English language learner program. The state lab focused on communicable disease control would receive $285,000 for an eastern encephalitis testing program and for tuberculosis testing and treatment services.

Buried the among the 54 sections of the bill is language to create a special commission to study the cost of early education and care, and ordering the secretary of public safety to study the use of active or passive fire suppression kits in state and municipal law enforcement vehicles.

The bill does not address any funding gap that could arise due to the recent repeal of the sales tax on software and computer services, though Democratic leaders have expressed optimism that sufficient revenues will be available before next July to make up for the loss of $161 million in the fiscal 2014 budget.

Officials from Ways and Means were not available early Tuesday to discuss the details of the bill, but a preliminary analysis by the News Service and other legislative sources suggest the bill would add about $24 million in new spending to the fiscal 2013 bottom line and carry more than $50 million over into the new fiscal year.

The new spending is less than Gov. Patrick requested. He sought $41 million in a budget bill filed in August.

The bill also includes $2.6 million to cover tuition and fee waivers for National Guard members and $3 million for community health centers to reimburse for dental, behavioral health and urgent care provided under Medicaid.

Lawmakers have until 5 p.m. Tuesday to file amendments to the bill.